When are Directors liable for unpaid company taxes? Shipleys Tax Advisors

IN THE UK’s corporate realm, the concept of limited liability shields directors from personal accountability for company debts, including tax obligations. However, there are specific instances where HMRC can pierce this corporate veil, seeking recompense directly from directors.

In today’s Shipleys Tax note we outline these rare yet significant circumstances and the potential legislative defences that may be available to company directors.

The Principle of Limited Liability Status

Limited liability maintains a distinct legal separation between the company and its directors. Nevertheless, this shield is not impervious. There are certain situations, often involving serious misconduct or negligence, where directors can find themselves personally liable for the company’s unpaid taxes.

Where Might Directors Face Personal Liability?

Director’s Personal Guarantees

When a director provides a personal guarantee for a company’s debt, they pledge their own assets as security for the loan. This guarantee means that if the company cannot repay its debts, the director’s personal assets can be targeted to recover the amount owed. Similarly, if a director has an outstanding balance in their director’s loan account, which is not settled before the company enters insolvency, they may become personally liable to repay this debt.

There are certain conditions, often involving serious misconduct or negligence, where directors can find themselves personally liable for the company’s unpaid taxes.

Wrongful or Fraudulent Trading

Directors must act responsibly with regard to the company’s financial status. Under insolvency rules, if directors continue to trade when they know the company is insolvent, or if they incur debts without a reasonable prospect of the company being able to repay them, they can be held personally liable for wrongful trading.

Fraudulent trading goes a step further, where directors deliberately set out to defraud creditors. In such cases, the courts can hold directors personally responsible for the company’s debts, resulting in serious legal and financial repercussions.

Tax Evasion or Avoidance

Tax legislation gives HMRC additional powers to hold directors accountable for tax evasion or avoidance. If a director is found to have a history of corporate insolvency, particularly if insolvency has been used as a means to evade or avoid tax liabilities, HMRC can pursue them personally. This legislation aims to deter directors from using insolvency as a tax evasion strategy, ensuring that corporate tax liabilities are met.

Personal Liability Notices (PLNs)

HMRC uses Personal Liability Notices to hold directors personally liable for the non-payment of PAYE or National Insurance Contributions (NIC). These notices are issued when HMRC believes that the non-payment was a result of the director’s neglect or fraudulent behaviour. Once a PLN is issued, directors can face significant personal financial liabilities, which HMRC will actively seek to recover.

…where directors deliberately set out to defraud creditors… the courts can hold directors personally responsible for the company’s debts, resulting in serious legal and financial repercussions.

Possible Mitigating Factors

When facing action from HMRC for liabilities such as PAYE, NIC, VAT, or Corporation Tax (CT), directors can employ several defences to potentially mitigate or challenge personal liability:

  1. Lack of Intent: Demonstrating that there was no intention to evade tax payments, that any underpayment was a result of genuine error or misinterpretation of complex tax laws, can be a defence. Evidence seeking clarification or rectifying mistakes as soon as they were discovered needs to be maintained.
  2. Reliance on Professional Advice: reliance on the advice of competent tax advisors or accountants might provide a shield against liability. However, reliance on professional advice is not absolute and usually requires proof that the advice was professional, based on correct accurate information, and reasonable.
  3. No Direct Involvement: A director may argue they were not involved in the day-to-day management of the company or in the financial decisions that led to the unpaid taxes. This could apply in situations where there is a clear division of responsibilities among multiple directors.
  4. Procedural Errors by HMRC: If HMRC fail to follow proper procedures or meet certain legal requirements when issuing a Personal Liability Notice (PLN) or taking other actions, this may invalidate their claim.
  5. Unforeseeable Circumstances: Events beyond the director’s control, such as sudden market changes, natural disasters, or other external shocks that impact the company’s ability to pay, might be used as a defence, especially if these events can be clearly shown to correlate with the period of non-payment.
  6. Active Engagement with HMRC: Demonstrating that there was active engagement with HMRC regarding any payment issues, attempts to negotiate payment plans, or voluntary disclosures of potential underpayments can act in the director’s favour.
  7. Economic Reality: In some cases, directors can argue that, despite their best efforts, the company was unable to meet its tax obligations due to economic conditions affecting the company’s liquidity.

It is crucial for directors to maintain accurate records and documentation to support these defences. They should engage with legal and tax professionals as soon as they are aware of potential tax liabilities or HMRC actions, to ensure their case is as strong as possible.

In conclusion, while the UK legislation primarily places the burden of unpaid taxes on the company, directors can be made personally liable in certain circumstances. If a director finds themselves facing a PLN or potential liabilities for unpaid taxes, it’s essential to seek advice from an tax expert or professional adviser.

For further assistance or queries, please call 0114 272 4984 or email info@shipleystax.com.

Please note that Shipleys Tax do not give free advice by email or telephone. The content of this article is for general guidance only and should not be considered as tax or professional advice. For advice on tax matters, always consult with a qualified professional.

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